Today is one of those rare days where I know I am going to scratch something off of my bucket list. This trip has two such moments, and today’s excursion is the first. Today I am going to visit Ayers Rock…or Uluru. In my heart I am very excited. Living 12 years away from Australia gave me an enormous appreciation of the place I am lucky enough to call home, and I think I have a greater spiritual connection to my homeland because of it.
I used to see images of places like Uluru and almost take for granted the fact that I lived here. Seeing those images while living abroad removes the apathy, and fills you with a sense of pride. So much so, that when you return, that love for your land and it’s gifts are even stronger. It never interested me in the past, to visit a place so out of the way, to see a rock, it made no sense. Today it does, and I have to admit that I am feeling a little emotional about the whole thing.
I hope I am not disappointed.
We pack the car up and pull out of Alice Springs at 10:30. Actually about 30 minutes earlier than we really expected, and make good time heading south. Why is it that I am the only one wanting to do the speed limit? I’m not complaining, the road is in good shape and overtaking opportunities are endless, but it just feels odd to be the only one belting down the road at 130kph.
It has to be said that the NT has been nothing that I expected. My vision was of a wide brown land, with dried spinifex, endless heat waves, and rolling red dunes. We have been so lucky with recent rains, that we have probably witnessed the region in a beauty that is rarely seen. Green grasses, and trees covered in vibrant green leaves. Creeks and channels with water, and billabongs crying out with the calls of frogs. Even the topography, with the rugged rocky outcrops and ranges are not what I expected to see. It’s a stunning place, and one that you have to visit in your lifetime.
About 2 hours south of Alice Springs we turn off of the Stuart Highway and onto the Lassiter. Named after a historical figure who was searching the outback for a legendary gold strike, the highway is the only way to get into the National Park.
About 140km out of Uluru we crest a hill to see a square top mountain in the distance, and like the rookie I am I announce “look kids, it’s Ayers Rock”. It doesn’t take long to get a better view and see that the shape broadens at the base with an unfamiliar trapezoidal formation, and we realize that it is not Uluru, but it is in fact Mount Conner (well, the signs say it’s Mount Conner). We decide not to stop at the lookout to get a photo…i’ll do that on the return trip tomorrow.
Onward we press toward the West, and we finally reach Uluru at about 2:30pm, and what a sight it is. I feel a sense of definite reverence…a profound spiritual perception that is both humbling and inspiring. Interestingly enough, the Anangu (Aboriginal people who are the caretakers of the area) have signs posted explaining that their mandate is to “teach” the way to behave, and to share the stories of their history, and it’s connection to the lands and it’s co-inhabitants, and all of this seems to make sense. They rely on you respecting the Rock as a being, and you just get a sense of not wanting to let them down. You don’t see any signs telling you what to do, or what not to do, other than those placed by the government (speeding, no standing, etc). Instead there are requests with explanations. It’s an unusual concept that opens up a debate amongst ourselves.
It is almost poetic that Midnight Oil is playing as we enter the Park. I had loaded about 2000 songs and they were on random, so it wasn’t a planned selection of Artist. We decide to turn back around and check into the Caravan Park, before we explore deeper. It’s a good plan to get unpacked and eat a lunch, then we can take the rest of the afternoon to experience the place uninterrupted.
After an uneventful lunch, we return to the National Park and pull over at the Sunset Viewing Parking area to take in our first view outside of a moving vehicle, and to get some photographs. The car park is empty except for an older Toyota Hilux (with Victorian license plates), parked across the parking bays, with 2 men taking photo’s. Their chat amongst themselves marks them as German, and I am immediately irritated by them for some reason. Maybe their mannerisms, certainly for the way they have just abandoned their car.
We press on to the cultural centre and spend a good hour and half learning about the area and it’s significance to the indigenous locals. They have really taken an active role in managing the Park, and their involvement is a breath of fresh air after experiencing the issues in Tennant Creek and Alice Springs. The cultural centre is really well laid out, and the art work and stories beautifully done. The Aboriginals seem to have a palpable relationship with the land and it’s flora and fauna that is intertwined with their own sense of being, and a modern lifestyle is at odds with that relationship. We see these things as resources to use to our own ends, while they see them as puzzle pieces that complete a whole picture, a picture that needs to be complete or it means a calamitous ecological shift that results in a sickness for all of the inhabitants.
The visitors centre also has some great information on the various animals and plant life found in the area, and videos and story boards on what each of these means to the lives of the Aboriginals who lived off of the land for tens of thousands of years. All the while there are lessons of respect.
Of course the cente has a gift shop, as well as a nice Art Gallery, selling beautiful pieces painted and sculpted by locals. We buy a few things from the souvenir shop, and head back to the car to explore the Rock proper.
Along the road there are several places that offer stunning views of Uluru close up, showing it’s blemishes and faultlines that are smoothed away by the distance of an all encompassing view. Many of these features are central to various stories told about the earliest arrivals of Aboriginals to the area. A horizontal slash here is is the result of an angry tail swish by a mother python in her battles against the poison snakes, while holes dotted along the rock are spear marks from another ancient battle.
We pull over at one particular sight and see along the rock face that a person is about 1/3 of the way up the rock, despite it being closed to climbing. I take several photos of the view, and a Park Ranger drives by and notices the scene. He pulls over and commences to take some of his own pictures. My pictures are called memories, his, it seems, are called evidence. It’s a $5,500 fine to climb the rock (we find out later) and he may have just paid his wages for the next few weeks. As we pull out I recognize the familiar Hilux from the parking lot, and only one of the occupants sitting in the ute. It looks as though one of my German friends is going to contribute more money to the local economy than he anticipated. I drive off with a smug sense of satisfaction.
We approach the area that is typically used as the launch for the climb up the rock. Being the summer season, the walk is closed for safety reasons. 38 people have died climbing the rock, and I guess the Government does not want many more. From that parking lot we take a stroll north along the western face. The micro climates are amazing, with small fissures and caves opening up to isolated oasis in the shadow of the rock itself. Some of the areas have specific significance as sacred sites for secret men’s business, while others are areas traditionally used by the women. For some reason, it is only the men’s areas that are off limits to photography. Most of the caves are decorated with aboriginal paintings, and the caves used as traditional class rooms are particularly covered.
After walking for about an hour, the track ends at a beautiful water hole that holds water all year round. Only during times of severe drought does the waterhole run dry, but with recent rains it is full and teaming with life. The clear cool water is very inviting in the afternoon heat, but the waterhole is off limits unfortunately. The presence of reliable water as turned this corner into a small oasis, and the tree canopy provides a very nice shelter from the heat around us. After enjoying it for about 20 minutes, we head back to the car. On the way back I partake in a little bush tucker, pulling a few small plums from a shrub. They are sweet, with a bitter after taste, and something the boys definitely don’t appreciate. At least they tried them, I guess.
We drive all around the park to the south western corner, and visit another perennial waterhole. This one gets more sun exposure, and is a bit more open to the elements, but the sound of the water trickling off of the rock provides a serene soundtrack to a spiritual place.
With the sun starting it’s final descent to the western horizon, I hurry back to the car to get a nice spot at the viewing area, and off we race…only to find we are beaten by about 200 other cars! I find a really nice spot with a tree in the near foreground to provide some nice composition, and we watch the sun set over Ayers Rock…truly a magnificent sight, and one I am hoping I did justice with the photographs.
We follow a convoy back to the accommodation, and spend the rest of the evening just relaxing, knowing tomorrow we leave the Northern Territory behind us.